Monday, January 19, 2009

Oral Transmission

When people hear that the Buddhist scriptures were orally transmitted for several centuries they assume that they must be very unreliable. It is often said that the Tipitaka was first committed to writing in Sri Lanka in about 100 BCE but this is a misunderstanding. The source of this information is the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Mahavamsa. But all this chronicle says is that the Tipitaka was first written in Sri Lanka at that time. It may well have been written down much earlier in India and indeed there is good reason to believe it was. It is likely that this was done during the reign of King Asoka. This king was a devote Buddhist, he was very concerned that the Dhamma should be preserved and disseminated, and he made wide use of writing as a part of public policy. Everything we know about Asoka suggests that committing the Tipitaka to writing is the very thing he would have done. If this is correct it would mean that about 200 years passed between the writing of the Tipitaka and the Buddha’s passing. However, the Manjusrimulakalpa says the Tipitaka was written down during the reign of Udayin, the son of King Ajatasatu (tadetat pravacanam sastu likhapayisyati vistaram). If this is correct, it would mean that the Tipitaka was written down only a few decades after the Buddha, when people who met the Buddha were still alive.
Centuries before the Buddha the brahmans, the hereditary priests of Hinduism, had perfected ways of committing the Vedas, the sacred scriptures, to memory so they could be passed on to the next generation. The earliest Vedas date from about 1500 BCE and did not start being written until at least the 11th or 12th century CE. This means that they were orally transmitted for at least 2500 years. Despite this, all historians and Indologists agree that the Vedas reflect daily life, beliefs and language of the time they were composed, i.e. that they have been faithfully handed down. How was this done? A brahman’s whole life was dedicated to becoming a living receptacle for the Vedas. From an early age they chanted them until they had committed them to memory, great attention was given to getting pronunciation and intonation correct. Many of the Buddha’s disciples who became monks were brahmans and they brought with them the mnemonic skills they had been educated in. These same skills were used to preserve the Buddha’s suttas, his sermons, talks and sayings. Like the Vedas, the suttas are clearly designed to be chanted. They are full of mnemonic devices – rhyming verses, repetitions, numbered lists, stereotyped phrases, etc. Even before the Buddha’s passing, monks and nuns would regularly chant the suttas in congregation (D.III,207). This made it difficult to add, delete or change anything once a sutta had been settled and committed to the memory of the monastic community. It is also important to realize that lay men and women had a role to play in orally transmitting the suttas too. The Vinaya says that if a monk hears that a lay person who knows a sutta that he doesn’t is dying, the monk should go and learn it from them before they pass away. Inscriptions from Sanchi mention lay men and women who knew (i.e. by heart) suttas and sometimes whole collections of suttas. The Buddha said he wanted not just his ordained disciples but also his lay men and women disciples to be ‘knowers of the Dhamma’ so that they could ‘pass on’ what they had learned to others (D.II,105). The oral transmission of the Tipitaka for two or even three hundred years was kids stuff compared to the 2500 years during which the Vedas were orally transmitted. It is interesting to know that long after writing came into vogue in India Buddhists continued to transmit the Tipitaka orally, believing, probably correctly, that it was more accurate than writing. When the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien was in Patna in the first decade of the 5th century he noted that although the Vinaya was written down the monks preferred to commit it to memory.


Arun said...

As a translator, I'm sure you are well aware that your justifications here all have their own well-worn responses in academic circles. You have no academic obligation for fairness, but it would be well to provide for your other blog readers both sides of the story. Please understand that I'm not at all trying to invalidate the point you make here. I often repeat it myself, but it definitely feels disingenuous to present less than half the story this way.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Arun, Before replying to you I looked up disingenuous just be sure I had it right - 'dishonest, insincere, especially when you pretend to know less about something than you actually do.' Ouch! How about a motive like wanting to give a brief, readable 'sound bite' to a non-academic, non-specialist readership?

Anandajoti said...

Dear Venerable,

Personally I think it is inconceivable that if Asoka had had the canon as a whole written down it would have gone unrecorded.

The most likely scenario is that some of the texts would have been committed to writing during the ealry period, but they were only written down in toto at the 4th council in Sri Lanka.

The earliest book in the world is the Gandhari Dhammapada, which was written on birch bark around the time the canon was written down in Sri Lanka on ola leaves.

None of the latter texts have survived, of course, as ola leaves have a very limited life span, normally no more than a few hundred years.

The texts were still orally transmitted as the preferred medium in Sri Lanka until the high middle ages.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Anandajoti, Trying to understand the early history of India is like getting a copy of 'War and Peace', tearing out three pages at random and then trying to reconstruct the whole story. It is inconceivable that if Asoka had the Tipitaka committed to writing that it was not recorded. But that the record of this should survive to the present is nearly as inconceivable. What we know of Asoka and his world is but a fragment of what once must have existed. I think it is likely that Asoka had the Tipitaka (or parts of it) written down but of course there is no evidence of this. Incidentally, the Mahavamsa's account of the sixth council was written 600 years after the events it describes and therefore should be treated with caution too.

anotherqueerjubu said...

As a storyteller working in the oral tradition, and as that improbable combination, a Jewish Buddhist, I have some thoughts about oral transmission.

In Judaism there is both the written Torah, and the Oral Torah. Unlike Buddhism, Judaism has a very broken chain of transmission, nevertheless it was hundreds of years the words of rabbis long gone were finally written down in the Talmud.

As the Venerable Dhammika points out, the oral tradition is responsible for the transmission of the Vedas. It is also responsible for the Iliad, the Odyssey and I would venture to say that when the great Chinese epic, Journey To The West was written down by a man who is considered to be its author, it had already existed as folktale.

Now it is true, then when a folklorist follows a tale in its journey across centuries and civilizations things can change radically. Consider that some scholars would say a good percentage of European folktales have their origin in the Indian Kalilah Wa Dimnah (which in fact has the folktale versions of jataka tales). So in the folktale tradition, the custom is embellishment and change.

But in ritual transmission, the emphasis is on getting it right. The repeated tropes and mnemonic devices found in the suttas are found in the Torah, and in other kinds of ritual tellings. The Torah continues to be taught with a cantillation that preserves the sound as it was heard 2500 years ago.

Regardless of how the suttas survived the centuries, I am profoundly grateful to all those in the chain of transmission oral and written (remember, copy a sutta was not heading over to the Xerox machine) who have preserved this wisdom so that we might use it to light our path.